It wasn’t even close. A few days after winning the Brazilian league title, by a whopping 13 point margin, Atletico Mineiro completed the domestic double by claiming the cup as well, beating Athletico Paranaense 6-1 on aggregate on Wednesday.
The triumph was rounded off — as it had to be — with a wonderfully taken goal by veteran striker Hulk, latching on to a pass behind the defensive line and beating the keeper with a subtle left foot chip. Hulk has no rivals as Brazil’s player of the year. After just two games in the land of his birth, he slipped away to Japan as an unknown and constructed his career abroad. For years he was under-estimated by many of Brazil’s football public, who constantly criticized his presence in the national team. This year, after he finally came home, they have had a chance to appreciate his quality.
The destiny of the cup had already been decided long before Hulk’s goal. Atletico Mineiro took the field in Curitiba with a hand and a half on the trophy. On Sunday, in front of their own fans in Belo Horizonte, they had established a massive 4-0 first leg-lead. Athletico Paranaense would have to do something very special to have any hope of turning things round.
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Their aim would have to be as good as that of some of their supporters, who threw stones at the visiting team bus as it arrived, and broke some of the windows. This set the tone for the opening exchanges. Before kick-off, there was an impressive light show. After kick-off, there was much more heat than light, and the referee had to bring the captains together and ask for calm.
Understandably, Athletico Paranaense had come to the conclusion that they needed to raise the emotional stakes. They came off their normal back three formation and tried something more aggressive, looking to play in crosses to the far post. They caused moments of alarm, and had the ball in the back of the net only for VAR to find a hand ball. But chasing such a big deficit, they inevitably left themselves open, and any tension evaporated half way through the first half when an Atletico Mineiro counter attack set up winger Keno to guide his shot home and effectively decide matters. Hulk got his name on the scoresheet, the hosts managed a late consolation and the celebrations could begin.
The first leg on Sunday had already given ample evidence of why Atletico Mineiro have enjoyed such a magical season; the league win was their first in 50 years and the only other club to have completed the double are their local rivals Cruzeiro who, to add extra sparkle to Atletico’s champagne, are currently languishing in the second division.
Athletico Paranaense travelled to Belo Horizonte with the same cautious game-plan that had served them so well in the semi final against Flamengo. But they were blown away.
The deadlock was broken by a penalty given for hand ball. Some have pointed an accusing finger at the number of soft penalties that Atletico Mineiro have been awarded this year, but talk of a great conspiracy is surely misplaced. The truth is that too many soft penalties are given in Brazil. And since Atletico have spent more time attacking, they have been awarded more than the others.
Turning that 1-0 lead into a 4-0 rout says plenty about the depth of Atletico’s squad. Hulk’s strike partner, acquired in the middle of the year, is the rumbustious former Atletico Madrid and Chelsea forward Diego Costa. He limped off injured in the early stages of Sunday’s game, when the score was still 0-0, but was not missed. After Hulk had scored a penalty, the second came from a superb shot from winger Keno — a bit part player for most of the campaign, but in sensational form over the final weeks. And the other two goals came from the player who came off the bench to replace Diego Costa, Chilean striker Eduardo Vargas.
Atletico have invested big and acquired a range of attacking options that proved far too much for Athletico Paranaense, just as they have proved far too much for most of the club’s other opponents during the course of the year.
The one exception — Palmeiras in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. They met in the semifinal, when Hulk missed a penalty and their opponents made clever use of the away goals rule, which will not be in effect next year, to book their place in the final and eventually win the competition for the second time in a row.
Atletico Mineiro bowed out of the competition unbeaten, but they will be back in search of continental glory in 2022. Indeed, it is tough to imagine either next year’s Brazilian league or the Libertadores title eluding the big three — Palmeiras, Flamengo and Atletico Mineiro.
For the previous couple of years the first two divided up the spoils. But Atletico Mineiro have invested, emerged and triumphed. Can the others find themselves a superhero to match the mighty Hulk?